Sunday Conversation: DC Entertainment publishers talk about redefining Superman at 80

Co-publishers of DC Entertainment, Dan DiDio, left, and Jim Lee, hold a copy of the first "Action Comics," also the first to feature Superman, which is kept in the company's archive.
Co-publishers of DC Entertainment, Dan DiDio, left, and Jim Lee, hold a copy of the first “Action Comics,” also the first to feature Superman, which is kept in the company’s archive.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s the challenge for Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, the publishers of DC Entertainment comics as the company celebrates 80 years of Superman and the release of “Action Comics” #1000: What can be done to shake up the Man of Steel?

“’Action Comics’ was defined by Superman since he was on the cover of the first issue. [He’s the] first superhero character. It ultimately not just defined Superman himself, but the genre of superheroes,” says DiDio. “That's why we love celebrating ‘Action Comics’ #1000, ’cause it wasn't just about Superman, but really, this entire business is built on that idea.”

DC is also releasing a compilation of Superman comics highlighting some of the key storylines that defined the character. Earlier this year, it was announced that Brian Michael Bendis, a longtime influential Marvel writer who recently defected to DC Comics, would be shaping Superman’s new direction.

“Brian's really going to put his mark on the character and redefine the mythology of the character,” said Lee. “That's exciting ’cause it shows that even after 80 years, there are new ways to rekindle and reignite the mythology.”

We sat down with the duo, with Lee calling in from South-by-Southwest (“It’s like Comic-Con without the superheroes!”) and DiDio at the Burbank headquarters of DC Comics to talk Superman, legacy and moving forward.

["Action Comics"] ultimately not just defined Superman himself but the genre of superheroes.

— Dan Didio

The first issue of "Action Comics" and the first featuring Superman sits in the archive at DC Comics.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

What was the thinking behind the #1000 numbering? Legacy? To excite collectors and fans with a kind of ‘#1’ mentality?

Jim Lee: It's interesting that you note that collectors and fans like the appeal of the first issue, but I'll tell you that historically, the next most important number is 100, and historically, this is the first time that a thousand has been reached. We're already seeing huge interest in this issue as a milestone issue and that fact that it's the first book to hit this number. I feel like the marathon runner who just stepped across the finish line and got to work on the thousandth issue given all of the incredible stories that were created prior to it.

Dan DiDio: The reality is that we wanted to embrace the history of the character. The best part about "Action Comics" #1000 itself is that while the story that Jim and Brian Bendis are doing is leading into ultimately the new direction of Superman, there are so many different standalone stories in that [80 years of Superman] book that really capture the essence of this character. So with all the promotion and attention around #1000, I think you're going to get this beautiful package of so many stories with all the depth and all the history of who Superman is. If you're a brand new fan or just have casual awareness of Superman, this is the place to start.

What can you say about the redefining nature of the story and the new direction the Man of Steel will be going in?

Lee: I feel like that's Brian's story to tell. All I can say is that it will be startling. It will be interesting. It will be illuminating. It will usher in a new era for the character, which is what you want. We didn't want to do a celebratory issue that didn't mean anything. In walks Brian with this great idea, this great premise, to redefine the character and it unlocked all these other ideas.

DiDio: Let me spoil it a little bit. Brian's stuff really does challenge the origin of Superman and calls in some new elements that reinterpret everything that's happened to him up until this point. The piece that you're going to see in "Action Comics" #1000 takes place after the events in "Man of Steel," so you get kind of a preview of what's to come. We introduce a new villain and there's lots of story beats inside there. More important, when you have as many people buying into this, it becomes a great launchpad for everything that Brian wants to do as well as to get a sense of the scope of the DC Universe.

Society, and the comics that represent it, are changing, but do we need a new Superman?

DiDio: It's the accessibility and relatability of the character that creates our constant need to really contemporize him and move the stories forward. With so much other media with our characters these days, it's essential for us to stay as innovative as possible. So we always feel like we have to be in front of them in our storytelling — reviewing them and finding ways to freshen them up. I think Superman is the perfect example. You've seen so many iterations, but he's always true to what he is, though he's still built on today's ideas.

What was the draw for bringing in Bendis?

Lee: We're longtime fans of his work at Marvel and really jealous that they had such a prolific writer [who] was driving so much of their narrative, their mythology and their universe. So, we knew he's a creator with big ideas. That's what you want on your biggest character and your biggest issue. He just came in with a passion that you see was a trademark for the work he did at Marvel. He's not a guy [who’s] scared of exploring, experimenting and really burrowing down into what makes characters tick. As Dan alluded to before, we do not keep these characters encased in amber for all eternity. We need to really keep them modern and fresh, and that requires risk and that requires change and that requires modernizing the mythologies. And we have a fearless writer in Brian, and that's something that doesn't happen very often.

Jim Lee’s rendition of Superman for “Action Comics” #1000.
(DC Comics)

We need to really keep [characters] modern and fresh, and that requires risk and that requires change and that requires modernizing the mythologies.

— Jim Lee

DiDio: It goes back to what we're celebrating — 80 years of Superman. A lot of times when you have a character for that long, you don't change the character that much. So what we try to do is bring in fresh voices, a fresh set of eyes and new perspectives.

What kinds of plans do you have to bring in diverse voices on some of the bigger books?

DiDio: We do a level of evaluation on all our books, but you have to understand our perspective as publishers. It's not just about the DC Universe, it's our entire publishing line. When you encapsulate our entire lines, from what we're doing now with the introduction of the young adult line, the introduction of a mature line — if you look at the aggregate, we are really diversifying our talent pool and our perspectives on our characters. The goal is to play to everybody's strengths and what works best and really find a way to expand out the universe with a much more ambitious publishing schedule.

Lee: To echo what Dan said. I don't know how familiar you are with our other lines — DC Zoom, DC Ink, the Sandman Universe, even the upcoming Milestone line. There's a lot of diversity in our ranks, and it really mirrors the audience that buys and reads our content. It's been a real interesting past couple of years as we've ramped up all of these different initiatives, and now that they're up and running, I think you can just look at the range of creators that we have. I don't think we've ever had as diverse and interesting of a group of creators lined for the entire publishing slate than we do now.

Comics are comics, but nowadays many people are getting their definitions of DC’s superheroes, including Superman, through other media ...

DiDio: As comics, we should be the leaders in some ways for a lot of the creative choices. The interesting part about Superman is that he has this weird synergy with the other mediums. We talk about Jimmy Olsen and kryptonite coming from the radio show, and we've seen characters being created in other media that we've been able to work back through, but still, from our standpoint, we want to be at the forefront of what's going on. It's great to see these things happening -- the launch of the "Krypton" show and the fact that "Supergirl" is on the air and other things happening — but for us, it's about the comics. It's a publishing moment and we want to celebrate it in that fashion.


What are you watching on TV right now?

Lee: “The Bachelor” because I enjoy celebrating young people who are on TV for the right reasons.

DiDio: Mets baseball

Co-publishers at DC Entertainment, Dan DiDio, left, and Jim Lee.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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